A former top Red Sox prospect is days away from playing real baseball

By WEEI 93.7

(The following is an excerpt from "The Monday Baseball Column: A World Series MVP's Tom Brady Conundrum". To read the entire column, click here.)

If you want your baseball fix the only place to get it these days is from South Korea, where teams have started back up with spring training games in preparation for their KBO season. 

If all goes as planned, regular season baseball in that country will kick off April 20.

The league was initially shut down in the middle of its spring training, some of which was taking place in Australia, due to the coronavirus. But thanks to universally-praised protocols — along with easy-to-get coronavirus tests — the KBO made its return with some intra-squad scrimmages. Such activities were made possible because not a single player from the league has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. (Although they aren't out of the woods yet, as is pointed out in this recent report.)

"Everybody is watching those practices like the Super Bowl," Red Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero recently noted when talking about the videos emanating from the KBO workouts in South Korea.

One familiar name who will be participating for the LG Twins for a second straight season is former Red Sox first-rounder Casey Kelly.

Kelly was training with his team in Australia and then Japan when it was determined foreigners such as himself should return to the United States while things were sorted out. So the pitcher — who turned in a 14-12 record and 2.55 ERA in 29 starts with his KBO team in 2019 — ventured back to Arizona where he has spent the last two weeks working out with his cousin, Arizona State pitching coach Jason Kelly.

“Now I’m just kind of waiting to find out when the season is going to start, go over there and start practicing for the season,” Kelly said by phone. (Monday he got the call and landed in South Korea Wednesday.)

“When we started spring training at the end of January, we were in Australia and during that time was when it started getting bad in South Korea. I feel like they are two or three months ahead of us where we are at right now. They are doing a great job of containing it. The (coronavirus) numbers are going down every day.

“We were keeping up every day in camp in Australia seeing the numbers go up and up in South Korea. We actually took a vote to stay or go to Japan. I know guys were concerned about their families, but fortunately, everybody on our team is fine and nobody has gotten sick.”

The original schedule put the KBO opening next weekend, with many in the league now surmising it will kick off in mid-April. 

For Kelly, the excitement of a baseball season is building. For a second straight year, he will have fellow former big-league pitcher Tyler Wilson on his team, with a better understanding of what to expect. It’s a comfort level that made him prioritize returning to South Korea instead of exploring MLB options.

“I would say the depth probably isn’t as deep as where the big leagues are,” he said of the league. “So if a couple of guys get hurt on your team the replacements … They aren’t as deep as they are in the big leagues. There are still a lot of great hitters. It took me a little bit to get to know them and know the hitters, so I felt the second time through I had a better idea. But I definitely got my butt kicked a bunch of times last year. It was a learning experience for me. … Just knowing I was going to be able to get 30 starts and 100-110 pitches every game and try to win the game, I learned how to pitch and learned how to turn over lineups and face them three and four times.”

As for remembering his time with the Red Sox — who took Kelly with the 30th overall pick in the 2008 draft before including him in the 2010 trade for Adrian Gonzalez — the 30-year-old Kelly sees it as a distant memory.

“Thinking back on it knowing it was 12 years ago, it makes me feel old a little bit,” said Kelly, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2018 when he 3.04 ERA in seven appearances with the Giants. “I was such a kid back then. I was just trying to figure out how to be a professional athlete, trying to make my way to the big leagues. The concerns were different. Growing up, maturing and figuring out what kind of pitcher I trying to be really good at the things that I do … Getting past some of the injuries, the last couple of years have been some of the best of my career. I’m only getting better each year.”

Another familiar name pitching in the KBO is William Cuevas, who went 13-10 with a 3.62 ERA for the KT Wiz in 2019. Cuevas owns a World Series ring, having appeared in the nine games for the Red Sox in 2018.